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Monday, November 24, 2008

Flocking Together

Yesterday the light on the sweet gum leaves was sensational, never mind that the tree looked like the alien species that it is in the grove of valley oaks. I tend to be a purist about native plants on the ranch, but it is hard to quibble with the renowned botanist who grew up on this place and brought in the exotics two generations ago. There are ginkgos, crepe myrtle, loquats, figs, Virginia creeper, St. John's wort, mountain ash and oleander. It was, after all, a pear operation in the last century. The valley floor's ancient lakebed soil, together with a local elevation of slightly over 1300 feet, was suited to pears. But it's still easy to imagine the valley oak groves which were displaced. I've brought in nine young valley oaks to keep company with the monarchs also numbering nine. We've planted manzanita, ceanothus, coyote brush, toyon, coffee berry and native fuschia, sage, currants and madrone.

The front line of advancing creek waters attracts mobs of red winged and Brewer's blackbirds.
With the return of water and winter, the black bird cacophony will feature large around here.

The ganging up in flocks is characteristic of this time of year. On the lake the coots have formed very tight rafts as have the comorants, diving ducks and white pelicans. Their defensiveness appears based on some shared dread of a menace embodied by the shortened days. We saw one good reason for their skittishness yesterday from our boat. A pair of bald eagles scouted
the multitudes for an easy mark. The waterfowl seemed at their wits' end. As we rounded a tule bed we flushed a flock of more than 3,000 white pelicans, which flapped up into diverging gyres.

We were one boat among perhaps a half dozen on all the sublime expanse of the northwest part of the lake. Inshore,
immense shoals of fry riddled and riffled the surface. The outlying waters of the open lake were dynamic with breeze-driven waves, fast flying ducks, big flocks of California gulls, and Western grebes watching us with one eye, their heads half averted.

A floating corpse turned out on closer inspection to be a grebe drowned by hook and filiment.

As we headed into shore I was so appreciative of the view of largely unspoiled tracts of land and marsh abutting the lake at Big Valley. The boat on its trailer, we were back in the pick up. We stopped to look at the marshy pastures near the county park. The scene looked heartbreakingly vulnerable to the future.